The document in question, which was submitted to the City of Anaheim on January 31, 2022, lists on page 77 that Progressive Solutions Consulting received the cash sometime between July and December of last year. The code used to identify the purpose of the payment is “CNS,” meaning Rafiei was consulting Ashleigh Aitken on her bid to become Anaheim’s next mayor.
In response to several questions The Investigator posed to Aitken about her relationship with Rafiei, the mayoral candidate acknowledged her “campaign contracted with Progressive Solutions Consulting at the end of 2021,” but said “we terminated our relationship with the company in February when Melahat Rafiei informed us that she was the subject of an investigation.”
Besides being a political consultant, Rafiei also happens to be the co-founder of WeCann, a company based near downtown Santa Anathat boasts itself as a “one-stop shop for cannabis entrepreneurs,” helping them with a wide array of issues ranging from “real estate acquisition and disposition, licensing fulfillment, business and investment consulting, and public advocacy.”
Reliable sources have told The Investigator that Cunningham, along with several associates, attended the September board meeting and delivered a presentation about his new blog, OC Independent, to members of that body. In addition, they claim shortly after he finished speaking, Gerry Serrano, president of the Santa Ana Police Officers Association, actively lobbied the board to write out a check to help fund it.
The Investigator first became aware of this matter back in December when it obtained emails exchanged between police officers stating the owner of the Anaheim Independent had gotten $10,000 from Serrano for his new blog and alleged it might be used as a platform to attack certain Santa Ana politicians. The Anaheim Independent is the previous name of the Anaheim Observer, an older blog that Cunningham still operates.
Excerpt from the board meeting minutes.
This newfound alliance between Cunningham and Serrano is yet another unexpected twist in The Investigator’s ongoing coverage of the embattled police union president of whom, at least from our perspective, has made what could be aptly described as a Faustian bargain with a political consultant who is sometimes at odds with–if not been completely opposed to–the goals of the Santa Ana Police Officers Association.
For example, on April 2, 2020, Cunningham made an urgent appeal to all of his Santa Ana friends on Facebook to vote “no” on the recall of Councilwoman Ceci Iglesias, a right-wing Republican the police union spent $341,000 to remove from her seat. Beneath his message was one of her anti-recall videos which not only portrayed Serrano as a greedy “union boss,” but characterized people like him as “bullies.”
There is no evidence the OC Independent receives any direct funding from the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce. But it is not a coincidence many political consultants with links to the Orange County Republican Party gravitate to this business advocacy group. This entity has always been an important hub of social networks for jobs because it is connected to many key players in industry and government.
For matter of record, The Investigator emailed several questions to Cunningham asking him about the $10,000 donation he received from the Santa Ana Police Officers Association, if he had conversations with Serrano or anybody else about the OC Independent running “negative articles about certain Santa Ana politicians,” and if he plans to approach other public employee unions for money to help fund this blog.
In response to our inquiry, Cunningham wrote the following:
OC Independent, like other independent news organizations, has a broad base of supporters to pursue its mission. We will not sell, share or trade our donors’ names or personal information with any other entity, nor send mailings to our donors on behalf of other organizations to respect donor privacy. As editor, I ensure our news stories are researched thoroughly, all subjects and stakeholders have an opportunity to comment, and then present the news to the public.
The Investigator also made three attempts to contact Serrano about this matter, emailing him questions quite similar to those we posed to Cunningham. But despite giving him an ample amount of time to issue a response, the police union president so far has not bothered replying to any of our messages. However, if we do eventually hear from him, we will most assuredly let our readers know.
Below is copy of the draft minutes of the September 23, 2021 board meeting of the Santa Ana Police Officers Association.
Mayor Harry Sidhu (left) welcoming Gloria Ma’ae (right) to his “Victory Party” at his four-acre Anaheim Hills estate in December 2018.
By DUANE ROBERTS Editor & Publisher
During the Tuesday, September 14th meeting of the Anaheim City Council, when Councilman Jose Moreno began raising objections to the “process” that body had chosen to select a replacement candidate for a councilman who had vacated his seat, hinting it was “preordained,” or rigged in favor of applicant Gloria Ma’ae, Mayor Harry Sidhu could barely contain his anger.
“Councilmember Moreno, I’m very much disappointed in you in bringing this up,” Sidhu said in a raised tone of voice. “It is one of the fairest process we’ve been through. We gave every applicant an opportunity to meet with the residents. We gave every opportunity for the residents to come out and speak, whether in favor, or whether in opposition of the candidates who applied.”
“It was given opportunity of the applicant to have one-to-one meet with the councilmembers,” he continued. “[T]he way it was done, was proper, giving everybody an opportunity to come and speak. I spoke, and I sat down with every applicant here …. [Y]ou’re trying to talk about unfair process is … in my opinion, is wrong. And this was a completely a transparent process…”
Likewise, at the September 14th council meeting, when Sidhu tried to rush through Ma’ae’s appointment with very little discussion or input, he said nothing about his close personal ties with her. Besides the fact Ma’ae is a known supporter of the mayor, she was a “special guest” at a “Victory Party” he held on his four-acre Anaheim Hills estate in December 2018.
Sidhu giving Ma’ae a hug.
The Investigator has roughly a dozen photographs of Ma’ae that were taken at the event. Besides the three we have published here, others show her mingling with then-Councilman Jordan Brandman and Lea Ament, the wife of Todd Ament, President and CEO of the Anaheim Chamber. In most photos, Ma’ae is seen with persons who would later be linked to Anaheim First.
Ma’ae chatting with Sidhu.
Despite what reservations The Investigator has about Moreno, he was correct: Ma’ae’s appointment was “preordained.” However, the “process” of selecting her really began in 2007 when she started participating in a “front group” called Support Our Anaheim Resort,run by a Newport Beach public relations expert hired by The Walt Disney Company and Anaheim Chamber.
Recently, “front groups” like SOAR, and now Anaheim First, have been one mechanism the resort elite has used to vet candidates for appointment to various boards, commissions and city council seats. The decision to put Ma’ae on the council was years in the making. That doesn’t mean Sidhu’s role should be discounted. But he’s just a cog in a much bigger political machine.
[Update: An earlier version of this post stated Gloria Ma’ae started participating in Support Our Anaheim Resort in 2011. That is incorrect. She began in 2007.]
Tony Serna, Vice-President of Agency 51, a Santa Ana advertising firm that has been a hidden force behind Anaheim First.
By DUANE ROBERTS Editor & Publisher
Much has been written aboutAnaheim First, the faux grassroots organization which, according to legal documents filed with the California Secretary of State in 2019, is controlled by Todd Ament, President and CEO of the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce. But very little, if anything, has been said about another entity thathas been a hidden force behind it.
If you have ever seen Anaheim First’s full page ads in a newspaper, a slick mailer inviting you to attend one of their town hall forums, or observed members wearing those proverbial blue shirts, you saw the handiwork of Agency 51, an advertising firm located in downtown Santa Ana, literally a block away from the Ronald Reagan Federal Building and Courthouse.
On its LinkedIn page, Agency 51describes itself as a “full-service integrated marketing communications agency with offices in Orange County, CA, specializing in implementing complex, strategic advertising programs.” Founded as a partnership in 2001, it has two offices nationwide: one in Santa Ana and another in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Agency 51 boasting about Anaheim First on its website.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Anaheim First was reinvented as a marketing tool to help local restaurants, microbreweries, wine bars, and other businesses survive the economic downturn. For months, residents have seen ads on social media sites, much like the one on Agency 51’sYouTube page, offering discounts for food, drink, and other items.
However, as more people get vaccinated and life returns back to “normal,” it will undoubtedly revert to its original form. At the March 23rd meeting of the Anaheim City Council, Mayor Harry Sidhu reaffirmed his commitment to the Chamber-backed group. He is up for re-election next year. Given Anaheim First is stacked with his allies, he’ll need all the support he can get.
Greg Garcia, Interim City Manager, speaks about the proposed ordinance to legalize cannabis businesses during a Zoom townhall forum.
By DUANE ROBERTS Editor & Publisher
At a Zoom townhall forum that Dr. Jose Moreno, councilman for District 3, hosted on Monday, May 11th, Greg Garcia, the Interim City Manager, told the online audience that the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce was behind efforts to legalize cannabis businesses within the City of Anaheim.
Revelations about the Chamber’s role in this matter, which up until now has been kept hidden from the public, was brought to the forefront by questions The Anaheim Investigator posed to Garcia during the forum. The Investigator specifically wanted to know who helped craft the proposed cannabis ordinance.
“We did put together a team internally of city staff and we also utilized some consultants to help us with the drafting and looking into other jurisdictions and run an analysis for us,” Garcia replied.
But he further added:
Also, to go back to the beginning, I think a lot of this came about because of a local task force that was put together by the Chamber that worked with hoteliers and others and businesses in Anaheim that were afraid that cannabis was going to be thrust upon us by the industry and therefore I think they took the time to think about if we were to do it in an Anaheim way, how would we do it, and then they shared that information I guess with some council members, and with us, and then council then directed us to continue looking at that and figuring out the best way to do it, Anaheim way….
The video of the May 11th townhall forum, which lasted about an hour and fifteen minutes, is available on Councilman Moreno’s Facebook page and can be viewed here or in the link below:
Matthew and Laura Cunningham are greeted as they arrive at Mayor Harry Sidhu’s “State of the City” address at the City National Grove last March
By DUANE ROBERTS Editor & Publisher
For several months now, Matthew Cunningham, the publisher of the Anaheim Blog, a website that covers city politics from a right-wing perspective, has shamelessly promoted Anaheim First, a 501(c)(3) non-profit founded by the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce, as being a “grass-roots community organization.”
In one article after another, Cunningham has lauded it as a being a “non-political” group made up of “residents of all ages, from every walk of life and every part of the city” who got together “to develop a resident-driven plan for guiding city investment in their neighborhoods,” blasting critics who call it a “front” for big business.
But in all of the articles he has penned about Anaheim First so far, he has neglected to mention two crucial details. First, his wife, Laura Cunningham, has played a behind-the-scenes role in organizing “town hall forums” for this non-profit. And second, she has been Senior Vice President of the AnaheimChamber at least since July.
Laura Cunningham oversees a breakout group at the Anaheim First Neighborhood Leadership Summit on July 10th.
From the back of the room, Laura Cunningham directed [Karen] Gulley to wrap up her presentation so that the town hall could turn to breakout groups. She’s the wife of Anaheim Blog’s Matt Cunningham who, unsurprisingly, wrote uncritically of the event while finding an opportunity to hammer away at Unite Here Local 11 union members for crashing the discussion session. Todd Ament, Anaheim Chamber of Commerce president and Anaheim First board member, confirmed to the Weekly that Laura worked for the Chamber, but not Anaheim First. The distinction didn’t seem to matter much during the town hall–or after. Laura helped clean up the gym to close out the night.
“This is a meeting to discuss the next steps of the group and our role,” wrote Garcia. “PlaceWorks [a consulting firm hired by Anaheim First] will be a part of the meeting to talk us through their plan.” Attendees included representatives from the Anaheim Chamber: Todd Ament, President and CEO, and Laura, who was listed as a contact.
In another email obtained by the Investigator, Mike Lyster, Chief Communications Officer for the City of Anaheim, was contacted by Laura on August 21st about setting up a meeting with him on an unrelated matter. She signed off using the title “Senior Vice President.” Attached to it was the logo of the Anaheim Chamber.
But most curiously, Matthew Cunningham has said nary a word about Laura’s work with Anaheim First. Of course, to acknowledge this would tear to shreds the narrative he has woven about it being a “grass-roots community organization.” Since when do ordinary people recruit business executives to set up their neighborhood meetings?
Furthermore, his wife’s relationship with the Anaheim Chamberraises questions as to how the Anaheim Blog reports the news. For example, does the favorable coverage that Cunningham offers Anaheim First reflect his genuine love and affection for that group? Or is he really doing it because he wants to help his wife succeed at her job?
Cunningham has long since denied his blog is being paid for by the Anaheim Chamber. But does it really matter? Both he and his wife have received thousands of dollars of income from them over the years. Doesn’t that serve as a strong enough disincentive for him to post articles on his blog that they might not like?
At the March 5th “State of the City” Address, Mayor Harry Sidhu shakes hands with Xochitl Medrano, while her father, Ernesto Medrano, looks on.
By DUANE ROBERTS Editor & Publisher
The Anaheim Investigator is in possession of evidence which now confirms that Xochitl Medrano, Director of Community Engagement for Anaheim First, a shady 501(c)(3) non-profit organization created by the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce to promote its interests, is the daughter of Ernesto Medrano, a member of the Anaheim FirstAdvisory Council in District 5.
But based on a careful review of dozens of photographs, screenshots of messages posted on social media, and various public records, the Investigator has determined that there is more than enough court-worthy evidence available to conclude that Xochitl is in fact Ernesto’s daughter.
Xochitl speaking at a WAND meeting.
Registered to vote in Whittier
Furthermore, the Investigator has evidence suggesting that at the time Xochitl became an Anaheim First director, she has never been an Anaheim resident, calling into question a claim she made at a June 12th meeting of the West Anaheim Neighborhood Development Council saying the reason why she joined this group was because “actual residents” invited her to become a part of it.
In reply to a question posed to Xochitl about how she “was asked to be involved” with Anaheim First, she offered a rambling response:
I was approached by actual residents and some of them come from District 5, and I also was approached by other residents from District 4 and they were talking about this group, and they just wanted to know more about it; and I also got to see the State of the City from the mayor. I watched that presentation and I was really interested to learn more about what it really takes to understand civic engagement and how it is not the same as political engagement.
But it would have been somewhat difficult for “actual residents” of any these districts to have “approached” her in person because public records make it clear she has never lived in Anaheim. For example, the Los Angeles County Registrar of Voters database shows that Xochitl was–and still is–registered to vote at a home in the City of Whittier, in a neighborhood more than sixteen miles away.
One “actual resident” Xochitl was acquainted with, however, is her father, Ernesto, who is a resident of District 5. The Investigator obtained a photograph of her standing near him while shaking hands with Mayor Harry Sidhu at the March 5th “State of the City” Address at the City National Grove.A month after this encounter, she began boasting on Facebook that she “started a new job” with Anaheim First.
Last year, Medrano was a key spokesperson for the “No on Measure L” campaign, a political committee set up by the Anaheim Chamber to oppose a successful ballot initiative that raised wages for workers employed by taxpayer-subsidized hotels in the Anaheim Resort area. Documents filed with the city clerk show this committee received most of its funding from big hotel developers.
Ernesto Medrano, Todd Ament, and William O’Connell pose for the camera at a “No on Measure L” press conference in 2018.
Hundreds of photographs reviewed by the Investigator show Medrano was a “special guest” at Mayor Sidhu’s “Victory Party” at his four-acre Anaheim Hills estate last December. Other persons also in attendance were Todd Ament, CEO of the Anaheim Chamber, William O’Connell, developer of the JW Marriot hotel, and Jordan Brandman, a Councilman and close friend of Medrano.
It should be no surprise to anybody that Ernesto Medrano’s daughter ended up as a director for Anaheim First. Through his work as a spokesperson with the “No on Measure L” committee, he formed close ties with Ament, who not only is CEO of the Anaheim Chamber, but he is one of the founders of Anaheim First and serves on its Board of Directors. Ament is in a position to decide who gets hired by that entity.
Nobody should be shocked to learn that former Councilwoman Kris Murray and Leslie Swan are also employed in key positions with Anaheim First. Besides the fact both of them are known political operatives, they have been friends with Ament for years through their affiliation with the Anaheim Hills Community Council, whose non-profit he controls. And like Medrano, both of them have ties to Sidhu.
As the Investigator did with our article revealing Murray’s hidden role with Anaheim First, we believe exposing these relationships not only helps underscore the political nature of this group, but to show how fraudulent it is. The Anaheim Chamber is trying to dupe people into thinking this is a “grassroots organization,” when in reality, it is a private club of mostly Sidhu lackeys handpicked to promote their agenda.
Kris Murray with Mayor-elect Harry Sidhu and Amelia Castro (now a member of Anaheim First’s Board of Directors) at the Disneyland Hotel in 2018.
By DUANE ROBERTS Editor & Publisher
A chain of emails the Anaheim Investigator recently obtained from the City of Anaheim during a routine California Public Records Act request strongly suggest that Kris Murray, a former Anaheim City Councilwoman, is working as a paid consultant for Anaheim First, a shadowy 501(c)3 nonprofit group created by the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce to promote its interests.
The first email in the chain, written by Xochitl Medrano, Director of Community Engagement for Anaheim First, consists of a message “reaching out” to David Belmer, Director of the Planning and Building Department, “on behalf of Leslie Swan and Kris Murray with Anaheim First,” inviting him to speak to their members later that month at the Chamber’s office near Angel Stadium.
It is reproduced here in its entirety:
From: Xochitl Medrano <email@example.com>
Sent: Monday, June 10, 2019 12:10 PM
To: David Belmer <DBelmer@anaheim.net>
Cc: Leslie <Leslie@AnaheimFirst.com>
Subject: Inviting you to speak again to Anaheim First members
I tried leaving you a voicemail on your office line but I wanted to make sure you also have my email. My name is Xochitl Medrano and I am reaching out to you on behalf of Leslie Swan and Kris Murray with Anaheim First.
We would love for you to speak again to Anaheim First members at our Onboarding meetings to talk about how the city’s Planning & Building Department operates and what residents should know about zoning. We are hoping you are available on June 19th and June 26th (both at 5:30 pm at the Chamber).
If you can let us know at your earliest convenience that would be most helpful. Also, if you cannot attend and would be able to send someone that would be great too!
Xochitl Medrano. Director, Community Engagement ANAHEI’M FIRST
Hi Xochitl. I am out of town at a family reunion on the 19th but available on June 26. Does it work if I only attend on the 26th?
The next day, Leslie Swan, Director of Anaheim First, jumped in by sending out an email graciously thanking Belmer for “accepting to speak to the Anaheim First Neighborhood Leadership Council on June 26th.” But Swan then quietly added Murray to the discussion, using the email address of her political consulting firm, KLM Strategies:
From: Leslie Swan <firstname.lastname@example.org> Sent: Tuesday, June 11, 2019 11:05 AM To: David Belmer <DBelmer@anaheim.net>; Xochitl Medrano <email@example.com>; Kris Murray <firstname.lastname@example.org> Subject: Re: Inviting you to speak again to Anaheim First members
Hi David, thank you for accepting to speak to the Anaheim First Neighborhood Leadership Council on June 26th. These are additional members, 10 for each district. We offered two dates for convenience purposes. Since we are splitting up the group in two sessions is there anyone in your office that could walk through the presentation you shared with us last September and Q and A’s? In our meeting here with the consultants, there was mention that many community members do not understand zoning and planning. We thought your presentation to Anaheim First Advisory Board in September is one that is on point with the process of the upcoming assessment. If you could assist us with someone from your office on the 19th it would be greatly appreciated. We are looking to have the meeting here at the Chamber 2099 S. State College Blvd. Suite 650, Anaheim at 5:30 pm. If there is any change on the location we will reach out to you. Enjoy your family reunion!
Leslie Swan Director Anaheim First 714-675-2044
2099 S. State College Anaheim, CA 92806
What role Murray has played in Anaheim First has been the subject of widespread speculation for several months now. Hundreds of photos reviewed by the Investigator clearly show Murray has been a visible presence at their secret meetings, including one held at the Anaheim Convention Center on March 13th where she was seated next to Councilman Jordan Brandman.
Mayor Sidhu speaks to members of Anaheim First during a secret meeting at the Convention Center while Brandman eats a salad and Murray snaps photos.
The emails the Investigator uncovered not only reveal that Murray’s involvement in Anaheim First is much deeper than what is publicly known, but they underscore the political nature of this group. Murray and Swan are friends of Mayor Sidhu. So is Xochitl‘s father, Ernesto Medrano. In fact, all three were guests at Sidhu’s victory party at his Anaheim Hills estate last December.
For matter of record, the Investigator sent two emails to Anaheim First asking for more information about Murray’s work for their group.
The following questions were posed:
Is she an employee or independent contractor? How much compensation is she getting? Is she being paid a regular salary? Or a flat fee?
A similar message was sent to Murray at the email address she uses for KLM Strategies.
Will you make a small $5 gift today? Your contribution will allow The Anaheim Investigator to keep delivering hard-hitting investigative journalism that’s open for everyone to see! Nobody covers Anaheim City Hall like like we do. That's why your support is so important to us!